History: Hopeless Pursuit or Holy Grail Adventure?

June 20, 1815 – August 24, 1815

Adams to Jefferson and Thomas McKean: “Who shall write the history of the American revolution? Who can write it? Who will ever be able to write it? The most essential documents, the debates and deliberations in Congress from 1774 to 1783 were all in secret, and are now lost forever.”

Four signers of the Declaration of Independence were still alive in 1815: Adams, Jefferson, Thomas McKean, and Charles Carroll of Carrollton. I don’t know why Carroll of Carrollton didn’t get a letter, too. I will assume nothing more than that he and Adams weren’t buds. Carroll of Carrollton, yes that’s how he signed his name. How long did it take before that became a running joke at the Continental Congress? “I now give the floor to the distinguished delegate from Maryland, Charles Carroll . . . yes, Carroll. Charlie Carroll? Of Carrollton, Charles Carrollton, I mean Carroll, of Carrollton. Carol’s son? No, I mean, I don’t know, maybe. Charlie, what’s your ma’s name? No, Mr. Washington, it’s Elizabeth, the wife of Charles Carroll. No, she’s his mother. Charles Carroll is her husband. This is Charles Carroll of Carrollton, her son. Yes, the Catholic. Sorry, sir, I should have said that to begin with. Ha ha, no other papists here, sir, that’s for sure. Charles Carroll of Carrollton the Catholic, the floor is yours.”

That awful excuse for humor rests upon the premise that George Washington is deaf and senile, I know.

I’ve successfully sidetracked myself from discussing the obvious question of whether we can truly know history or whether it is like a star in the night sky that is impossible to see except peripherally. I buzzed through American Creation again to see if Joseph J. Ellis verifies Adams’s comment or if some secret documents have been discovered between 1815 and now. Here’s what he says:

“No true history of that fateful time would ever be written, Adams insisted, because the most important conversations occurred ‘out of doors’ in local taverns and coffeehouses. What’s more, the official record of the deliberations imposed a misleading gloss of coherence over the congressional proceedings, concealing the messy confusion that reigned supreme for all the delegates, himself included. Any coherent narrative of the deliberations must necessarily falsify the way it really was for all the participants, who were improvising without a script in a historical drama without a known conclusion.”

So, no secret documents. Depending on your personality, or need to prove a point based on history, this could be a discouraging or exhilarating thought. Here’s Ellis again:

“Adams was making a serious, perhaps even profound, point: namely, that retrospective history—that is, history viewed with the benefit of hindsight—is invariably neater and tidier than history experienced by those making it. But since hindsight is the only interpretive tool historians have at their disposal…”

Ellis obviously isn’t aware of Pastwatch, but I digress. (For all of you Orson Scott Card fans.)